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In defence of South African academics' successful call for a boycott of Israel

Drawing comparisons to South African apartheid policies: Israel requires Palestinians to carry identification documents that restrict their movement. UN photo.

By the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI)

Occupied Ramallah, September 30, 2010 -- PACBI welcomes the decision[1] on September 29, 2010, by the Senate of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) "not to continue a long-standing relationship with Ben Gurion University (BGU) in Israel in its present form" and to set conditions "for the relationship to continue". The fact that the UJ Senate set an ultimatum[2] of six months for BGU to end its complicity with the occupation army and to end policies of racial discrimination against Palestinians is a truly significant departure from the business-as-usual attitude that had governed agreements between the two institutions until recently. 

If the Senate decision was a commendable first step in the right direction towards ending relations with Israeli institutions implicated in apartheid policies and support for the occupation, the real victory lies in the intensive mobilisation and awareness-raising processes by key activists and academics in South Africa that indicated beyond doubt the groundswell of support for Palestinian rights in the country and that played a key role in influencing the UJ Senate vote.

A petition urging UJ to sever links with BGU remarkably gathered more than 250 signatures of academics from all academic institutions in South Africa, including some of the most prominent figures. The mainstream media attention, in South Africa and the West, to the facts about BGU’s complicity and the heavy moral burden placed on the shoulders of South African institutions, in particular, to end all forms of cooperation with any Israeli institution practicing apartheid has been unprecedented, with views favourable to justice and upholding international law gaining wide coverage.

The UJ Senate has requested BGU to “respect UJ’s duty to take seriously allegations of behaviour on the part of BGU’s stakeholders that is incompatible with UJ’s values” and to provide more information about “BGU’s formal policies and informal practices”. Explaining this aspect of the ultimatum, Adam Habib, UJ’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor, told Aljazeera[3]:

[W]e know that the BGU has collaborative projects with the Israeli army and we also know that the university implements state policy which invariably results in the discrimination of the Palestinian people. Crucially, there can be no activities between UJ and an Israeli educational institution that discriminated against the Palestinian people.

 Salim Vally, a senior researcher at the UJ Faculty of Education and spokesperson for the Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC), welcomed the decision saying:

While the PSC supports an unequivocal and unambiguous boycott of all Israeli state institutions, this is a move in the right direction and we are confident that it would lead to a more comprehensive boycott of Israel in the future.[4]

Regardless of all concerns about the details of the decision, a predicted outcome of a delicate balance of forces in a university that is still dealing with its own apartheid past, it cannot but be viewed as a triumph for the logic of academic boycott against Israel's complicit academy, as consistently presented by PACBI and its partners worldwide, including in South Africa. It is, indeed, as a significant step in the direction of holding Israeli institutions accountable for their collusion in maintaining the state's occupation, colonisation and apartheid regime against the Palestinian people.

As former South African cabinet minister and ANC leader Ronnie Kasrils wrote in the Guardian (see below):

Israeli universities are not being targeted for boycott because of their ethnic or religious identity, but because of their complicity in the Israeli system of apartheid.[5]

PACBI warmly salutes all those who worked on and who endorsed the campaign to cut links with BGU. The precedent-setting petition, endorsed by the heads of four South African universities and prominent leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Breyten Breytenbach, John Dugard, Antjie Krog, Barney Pityana and Kader Asmal, does not mince words in calling for severing links with BGU and, it implies, with all Israeli institutions complicit in violations of international law [6]:

While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation.

Archbishop Tutu defended the call to sever links with complicit Israeli institutions saying[7], "It can never be business as usual. Israeli Universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice." Reiterating his unwavering support for the Palestinian-led global campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, he eloquently adds:

Together with the peace-loving peoples of this Earth, I condemn any form of violence - but surely we must recognise that people caged in, starved and stripped of their essential material and political rights must resist their Pharaoh? Surely resistance also makes us human? Palestinians have chosen, like we did, the nonviolent tools of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

While challenging BGU's complicity, the UJ Senate decision does not fully heed the call by Archbishop Tutu or the 250 South African academics. It makes problematic assumptions and reaches, in part, conceptually and morally flawed conclusions.

First, by conditioning the continuation of links with BGU, among other conditions, on including a Palestinian university in a three-way collaboration, the UJ Senate decision indirectly assumes “parity between justice and injustice”, which Mandela cautioned against, and balance between an institution that is in active partnership with the system of apartheid and occupation and another university that is suffering from this same system. This position is morally untenable, especially when espoused by an academic institution that is transforming itself from an apartheid university to one committed to equality and social justice.

Furthermore, this attempt to cover up an essentially immoral relationship with BGU -- that was forged during apartheid at the height of Israel's partnership with the racist regime in South Africa -- by suggesting a Palestinian fig leaf is in direct violation of the long standing position by the Palestinian Council for Higher Education which has consistently called on all Palestinian academic institutions not to cooperate in any form with Israeli universities until the end of the occupation.[8] It is also in conflict with the Palestinian Call for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel[9] and the Guidelines for the International Boycott of Israel,[10] both widely supported by Palestinian civil society, particularly by the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE), representing the academic and support staff in all Palestinian universities and colleges. Does enticing the victim of a criminal to “partner” with that criminal make the latter less so?

Second, the statement that "UJ will not engage in any activities with BGU that have direct or indirect military implications" is quite troubling in its logic, if taken literally, not as interpreted by Prof. Habib above. It basically says that it is acceptable to do business with a criminal entity so long as the particular business done with it is above suspicion. Had this logic been applied to a South African apartheid institution at the height of the international academic boycott, it would have meant continuing business as usual with that racist institution so long as the specific project conducted with it was not directly or indirectly implicated in apartheid policies. The fact that the institution as a whole is guilty of complicity in apartheid would have been deemed irrelevant.

BGU as an institution is guilty of complicity in the Israeli occupation and apartheid policies; nothing can make any "environmental" or "purely scientific" project it conducts with UJ morally acceptable until it comprehensively and verifiably ends this complicity.The culpability of the entire institution in violations of international law and human rights cannot be washed away by narrowing the focus or diverting attention only to details of the project with UJ.

As Archbishop Tutu said:

In the past few years, we have been watching with delight UJ's transformation from the Rand Afrikaans University, with all its scientific achievements but also ugly ideological commitments. We look forward to an ongoing principled transformation. 

A post-apartheid South African university that is in the process of transforming itself to a truly democratic institution cannot possibly complete this necessary transformation while maintaining a partnership with an apartheid institution elsewhere. We sincerely hope that UJ will continue on the path it has taken, by completely severing its links with BGU and any other Israeli institutions complicit in violating international law and human rights.

Notes

[1] Media release issued by the UJ Division of Marketing and Communication on September 29, 2010.

[2] http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2010/09/201092920223262366.html

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/29/south-africa-boycott-israel

[6] http://www.UJpetition.com

[7] http://www.timeslive.co.za/world/article675369.ece/Israeli-ties--a-chance-to-do-the-right-thing[8] The Palestinian Council for Higher Education, composed of heads of Palestinian universities and representatives from the community, has since the 1990s adhered to its principled position of rejecting "technical and scientific cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli universities" until Israel ends its occupation; this position was reiterated in a statement of thanks to the UK academic union NATFHE for adopting the academic boycott of Israel in 2006. See http://www.mohe.gov.ps/ENG/news/index.html#7.

[9] http://pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=869

[10] http://pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1108

[Visit PACBI at www.pacbi.org.]

In defence of South African academics' call for a boycott of Israel

By Ronnie Kasrils

October 1, 2010 -- Electronic Intifada -- When African National Congress (ANC) leader Chief Albert Luthuli made a call for the international community to support a boycott of apartheid South Africa in 1958, the response was a widespread and dedicated movement that played a significant role in ending apartheid. Amid the sporting boycotts, the pledges of playwrights and artists, the actions by workers to stop South African goods from entering local markets and the constant pressure on states to withdraw their support for the apartheid regime, the role of academics also came to the fore.

One significant move was the resolution taken by 150 Irish academics not to accept academic posts or appointments in apartheid South Africa. In 1971, the council of Trinity College Dublin took a decision not to own shares in any company that traded or had a subsidiary that traded in the Republic. The council later resolved that the university would not retain any formal or institutional links with any academic or state institution in South Africa.

Almost four decades later, the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against apartheid Israel is gaining ground again in South Africa, this time against Israeli apartheid.

Earlier this month, more than 100 academics across South Africa, from more than 13 universities, pledged their support to a University of Johannesburg initiative for ending collaboration with the Israeli occupation. The campaign has since grown to include up to 200 supporters. The nationwide academic petition calling for the termination of an agreement between the University of Johannesburg and the Israeli Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has attracted widespread attention. With the recent endorsement of some of the leading voices in South Africa, such as Kader Asmal, Breyten Breytenbach, John Dugard, Antjie Krog, Mahmood Mamdani, Barney Pityana and Desmond Tutu, the statement confirms the strength of the boycott call in South Africa:

As academics we acknowledge that all of our scholarly work takes place within larger social contexts -- particularly in institutions committed to social transformation. South African institutions are under an obligation to revisit relationships forged during the apartheid era with other institutions that turned a blind eye to racial oppression in the name of "purely scholarly" or "scientific work".

Israeli universities are not being targeted for boycott because of their ethnic or religious identity, but because of their complicity in the Israeli system of apartheid. As the academics who have supported the call clearly articulate in their statement, Ben-Gurion University maintains material links to the military occupation. Israel's attacks on Gaza in 2009, which saw the killing of more than 400 children, drew immediate and widespread international condemnation. Israel's violation of international law was further confirmed by South Africa's Justice Richard Goldstone in his report to the United Nations. Ben-Gurion University directly and indirectly supported these attacks, through the offering of scholarships and extra tuition to students who served in active combat units and by providing special grants to students who went on reserve duty for each day of service.

The principled position of academics in South Africa to distance themselves from institutions that support the occupation is a reflection of the advances already made in exposing that the Israeli regime is guilty of an illegal and immoral colonial project. South Africa's Human Sciences Research Council, in a response to an investigation commissioned by the South African government in 2009, issued a report confirming that the everyday structural racism and oppression imposed by Israel constitutes a regime of apartheid and settler colonialism similar to the one that shaped our lives in South Africa.

More recently, the international response to the shameful attack on the flotilla carrying medical supplies and other basic goods to the ghettoized population of Gaza was a sign of the erosion of Israel's legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. In South Africa, the recall of our ambassador to Israel and the issuing of one of the strongest forms of diplomatic condemnation, the demarche, to Israel's ambassador in Pretoria was a strong statement of recognition by the South African government that Israel's actions deserve our utmost contempt.

The campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel has now launched in South Africa. Trade unions in South Africa have publicly committed their support; most notably with the action by South African Transport and Allied Workers Union dockworkers early last year to refuse offloading Israeli goods at Durban harbor -- a commitment that was renewed in July this year.

The consumer boycott has also been gaining ground, including the launch of the recent public campaign by leading South African activists to boycott Ahava Dead Sea Cosmetics and to join the international movement to boycott Israeli products.

The boycott and sanctions campaign ultimately helped liberate both black and white South Africans. Palestinians and Israelis will similarly benefit from this international non-violent campaign -- a campaign that all South Africans can take forward.

The petition to terminate the relationship between University of Johannesburg and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev can be accessed at www.ujpetition.com.

[Ronnie Kasrils is a veteran anti-apartheid activists and a former minister in the African National Congress-led government of South Africa. A version of this essay was originally published by the Guardian's Comment is Free.]

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